Food Insecurity in LaosAlthough the poverty rate in Laos more than halved between 1993 and 2018, nearly one in five households still experience poverty today. Not surprisingly, food insecurity in Laos continues to be a concern. Laos ranked 82nd out of 121 countries on the Global Hunger Index in 2022. The World Food Programme (WFP) reports that about 33% of Laotian children younger than 5 experience stunting and the RFA (Radio Free Asia) states that, in the Xienghone district, more than 20% of Laotian children younger than 5 suffer from malnourishment.

The Human Capital Index report by the World Bank indicates that “Lao children born today only reach 45% of productivity they could have if afforded full health and education.” This shows that these deprivations are not only detrimental to the individual but to the progression of the country as a whole.

Reasons Behind Food Insecurity in Laos

At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, hunger in Laos rose. Prior to the pandemic, Laos depended on food aid from Vietnam to meet citizens’ food needs. However, when countries closed their borders, this was no longer possible. Additionally, the food programs already in place in Laos are failing as these initiatives are not able to “[keep]pace with the changing circumstances,” including changing weather patterns, natural disasters and “land mismanagement” according to the RFA.

Laos’ geographic location also makes the nation more vulnerable to droughts and floods. These extreme weather events severely impact food security in Laos by destroying existing crops, thus affecting the livelihoods of farmers. Furthermore, as a landlocked and predominantly rural country, it is more difficult to transport and access food.

Additionally, issues regarding access to clean water and sanitation contribute to poor nutritional outcomes in Laos. A lack of water, sanitation and hygiene facilities can lead to diseases that impact the body’s ability to absorb nutrients. ReliefWeb reports that “malnutrition can be widespread even in regions with plentiful supplies of affordable food because this food is not well absorbed by the body.”

Efforts to Reduce Food Insecurity in Laos

The WFP has been “working in partnership with the Government of Lao PDR on promoting access to nutritious food for school-age children for two decades,” according to the WFP website. To improve nutrition and reduce hunger among children, the WFP leads school feeding programs. During times of crisis and emergency when the government cannot adequately provide for citizens’ needs, the WFP “provides nutritious food and cash assistance.”

The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) is helping to address hunger and malnutrition in Laos through various programs and interventions. As part of the positive Deviance/Hearth initiative, a community nutrition rehabilitation program, in 2021, ADRA Lao’s health and nutrition officer, known as Chef Touktick, taught children and women how to cook healthy and nutritious food.

By implementing long-term strategies, the government of Laos can ensure sustainable solutions to food insecurity in Laos while improving the quality of life of citizens.

– Priya Maiti
Photo: Flickr

Child Poverty in LaosLocated in the center of South-East Asia, Laos or Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia.  Nearly 23% of the total population of 7.2 million people in Laos are below the poverty line.  More than half of the population in Laos are under the age of 18 and they are severely impacted by poverty.  Besides the economic growth, the multidimensional deprivation in children is highly associated with the low levels of infrastructure and the heavy reliance on agricultural activities.  The children in poverty in Laos are impacted in various sectors such as nutrition, child labor and education. It’s important to be addressing child poverty in Laos and the numerous struggles that spawn from it.

Overview of Child Poverty in Laos

In Save the Children’s 2021 Global Childhood Report, Laos was ranked 143 of 186 countries on an index reflecting countries’ average levels of performance based on eight indicators related to child health, education, labor, marriage, childbirth and violence. According to the statistics from UNICEF in 2018, only 12% of children experience no deprivation while the other remaining children under 18 years are suffering from at least two deprivations in the areas of nutrition, health and education.

Food Insecurity

Widespread child malnutrition and food insecurity remain as persistent problems in Laos.  The World Food Program and Lao government ranked Laos 87th out of 177 countries on the 2019 Global Hunger Index.

In terms of food security, the share of the household experiencing severe food insecurity rose to 23% in May 2022.

Child Labor and Education

The report from Save the Children estimated that 28.2% of children aged five to 17 were involved in labor from 2015 to 2020

In 2021, Prime Minister Phankham cited that a low level of development in Laos correlates with the parents’ reliance on their children to help out with finances at home rather than getting an education. The main problem of early involvement in child labor leads to the lack of educational opportunities.  To elaborate, the 2019 Southeast Asia assessment of learning outcomes showed that fifth-grade students are not mastering the minimum proficiency level for the grade in terms of reading, writing and math skills.

Poverty in Laos is forcing children to drop out of school and participate in child labor to help their families.   In 2021, approximately 28% of children are engaged in child labor, instead of learning according to the Save The Children report. Although the Laos Law prohibits child employment under 14, numerous children are engaged in various forms of labor.

Because of the devastating poverty situation, most of the parents in Laos do not see the importance of education and instead encourage their children to participate in physical labor to amend their financial struggle.  According to an official from the Education Department in Sekong province, students aged 10 to 12 from rural areas often quit school or only attend classes two or three days a week. The lack of infrastructure in the education sector and low government spending has aggravated the situation of the children in poverty in Laos for accessing education.

The Impact of COVID-19

Since 2021, the impact of the pandemic adversely impacted the children’s education opportunities in Laos.  Approximately 42% of children stopped attending schools temporarily or permanently after many households faced financial collapse because of the pandemic.

Efforts to address Child Poverty in Laos

The national poverty rate in Laos has continuously dropped with annual GDP growth of 7.3%.  According to the statistics from the World Bank, between 1993 and 2019, the poverty rate fell from 46% to 18%. However, the poverty rate in minority ethnic remained relatively high, with the rate of 34.6%.  This disproportionate poverty rate in minority ethnic groups was ten times higher than among households headed by those who have completed secondary education.

To help improve the education status, the World Bank and the government launched a $47 million national project aimed at improving pre-school and primary education performance in September 2021

USAID also took the progressive approach to child education in Laos in 2022, DA Coleman announced a new $2.6 million USAID grant to support childhood and primary education.

To enhance the nutrition security in Laos, the government of Laos jointly partnered with WFP’s Country Director to launch WFP’s new Country Strategic Plan 2022-2026 in February 2022.  This strategic plan is centered on expanding and strengthening the Government’s school meals program, working to enhance community resilience and ensure food security.

A Look Ahead

By implementing long-term commitments and strategies both nationally and internationally, the prospect of eliminating child poverty in Laos is positive.

Youngwook Chun
Photo: Flickr

Nature-Based Tourism in Laos
Laos, known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is the only landlocked country located in Southeast Asia and shares borders with Thailand, China, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. While it is one of the poorest countries in the region, its economy has significantly increased in the last 20 years. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, around 42,000 people in Laos or 60% of the labor force had employment in tourism, with 62% of the workers being women. Tourism was growing fast in the Lao PDR, having as many as 4.1 million international tourists in 2018. However, with the travel distribution of the COVID-19 pandemic, half of the tourism businesses closed temporarily. This caused the furloughing of 70% of their employees. The Asian Development Bank recognizes nature-based tourism in Laos needs undergo enhancement, especially as it ties to agriculture. Organizations such as the World Bank have offered recommendations on how to expand nature-based tourism in Laos. Additionally, the Global Climate Change Alliance Plus Initiative has highlighted how Laos’ practices to preserve the country’s environment can lead to job expansion in the tourism industry.

About Nature-Based Tourism

Tiger Trail Travel defines ecotourism as “tourism activity in rural and protected areas that minimizes negative impacts and is directed towards the conservation of natural and cultural resources, rural socio-economic development and visitor understanding of, and appreciation for, the places they are visiting.” According to the World Bank, Lao’s “lush nature and rich culture offer an opportunity to develop nature-based tourism, which can generate revenue, create green jobs and livelihood opportunities and lay the groundwork for greener economic growth.”

The Overall Issue

The Asian Development Bank advocates “raising competitiveness and strengthening the links between agriculture and tourism” in order for the Lao PDR to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. An ADB report found that tourism in Laos also supported growth in several sectors including livestock, fisheries and organic vegetables, potentially creating new “agricultural value chains.” Travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic forced around 180 tourism businesses the ADB surveyed to temporarily close, furloughing 70% of workers. Support for the tourism sector could include financial assistance and increases in vaccination, and reopen travel with “transparent, effective, and clear communication of health and safety protocols.”

Measures Laos Can Implement

The World Bank has found that the Lao PDR has beautiful landscapes of rainforests, waterfalls and mountains, all of which offer an opportunity to generate revenue and green jobs through greener economic growth. The World Bank claims, “in the next decade, nature-based tourism could grow in Laos from 4.3% of 2019 GDP and 3.5% of jobs to the global average of about 10% of GDP and 10% of jobs.” Laos has around 15% of the country set aside for conservation purposes on 23 national reserves, having more than 1,200 villages with 840,000 people residing within the boundaries. Additionally, because of international demand, Laos has the opportunity to develop nature-based tourism, as well as have “policies that enable responsible private investment and effective conservation.”

The World Bank gives two recommendations for strengthening nature-based tourism in Laos such as facilitating private investment and managing protected areas. To facilitate private investment, they suggest reducing barriers to tourism businesses for investment, creating regulations pertaining to small businesses in the tourism industry, establishing regulations and procedures in protected areas and giving “vocational training in nature-based tourism and innovating market development, and hospitality.” For managing protected areas, they suggest creating and finalizing plans for those areas, elevating the skills of departments protecting those areas, managing waste in protected areas and establishing a system involving fees and revenues around protected areas.

What Laos is Doing

The Global Climate Change Alliance Plus Initiative recognizes tourism has been a large part of Laos’ economy since the mid-2000s and the country has a lot of untouched nature. GCCA+ reported that for nature-based tourism in Laos, innovations have occurred that include the banning of chemical cleaning products in order to preserve water, wildlife and plants. Some local markets sell only organic foods to local restaurants, creating full-time jobs such as sustainability managers. GCCA+ also recognizes other organizations such as LuxDev, “which runs a ‘skills for tourism’ programme in Laos.” LuxDev recognizes that by having local and young people involved in the sustainable tourism industry in Laos, everyone benefiting is less likely to trash the environment.

LuxDev is an organization that “manage[s], monitor[s], and support[s] Luxembourg developing efforts in Laos,” after first setting up an office in Vientiane in 2016. It is an agency that supports skills development in Laos’s tourism sector, helping the poorer and more vulnerable groups in remote areas of Lao PDR. 

Looking Ahead

Laos has many options to enhance its tourism industry, especially in a region so rich and prosperous in nature. Through strong nature-based tourism in Laos, more people will see the country’s beauty, thereby creating more jobs and further helping the agricultural sector. With a stronger focus on tourism, Laos’s economy can continue to grow.

– Jerrett Phinney
Photo: Flickr

Human Trafficking in Laos
Human trafficking in Laos, despite its moderate severity relative to other countries, nonetheless remains a critical driver of sexual exploitation and forced labor. The 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report, issued by the U.S. Department of State, categorizes Laos as a Tier 2 nation. The Laos government thus falls short of the TVPA’s minimum standards for eliminating trafficking, in spite of efforts to meet such standards.

Targets of Trafficking

Traffickers predominantly deliver adolescent Lao girls and women to Thailand and China, though at times Malaysia and Vietnam, where they then coerce the victims into commercial sex. Otherwise, the women, under coercion, perform domestic, factory and agricultural work. In particular, traffickers frequently sell the women sent to China as brides. Trafficked Lao boys and men, on the other hand, typically enter Thailand’s fishing, construction and agricultural sectors. Traffickers attract victims with promises of reliable job opportunities in neighboring countries.

Lao victims of human trafficking are most often migrants seeking work abroad. Otherwise, they are impoverished students disinterested in continuing education and instead preferring to work to contribute income to their families, according to the U.S. Department of State. Such individuals either voluntarily and legally enter destination countries or traffickers enable them. The lax management at border crossings resulting from the insufficient training of provincial and district level immigration authorities especially enables illegal entry. Additionally, foreign traffickers have begun working with Lao middlemen to facilitate the transit of victims across borders.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, large amounts of both legal and illegal Lao workers have returned home. This created rampant unemployment and dramatically increased demand for work. Such conditions have rendered poverty-stricken Lao workers exceedingly susceptible to trafficking, seeing as they opt for low-paying and ethically-gray work within Laos. For instance, the closure of the Laos-Thailand border, coupled with increased willingness to engage in domestic commercial sex, has led to a surge in sex trafficking, the U.S. Department of State reported.

Existing Legislation

The Laos government gravely punishes any form of trafficking. For instance, Article 215 of the penal code criminalizes trafficking, punishable by five to 15 years of imprisonment. The fine is ranging from 10 million to 100 million Lao kip (equivalent to $1,080 to $10,780), according to the U.S. Department of State. The Article further stipulates that if the crime implicates an underage victim, the fine increases to 500 million Lao kip (equivalent to $53,880) at most.

Nonetheless, such measures prove insufficient for resolutely curbing trafficking. Several gaps exist within the current penal system. For one thing, law enforcement is often reluctant to extend severe punishments to first offenders. Moreover, there is little protocol for investigating potential perpetrators, so as to preemptively stem trafficking. The Anti-Trafficking Department also remains the only authority capable of identifying trafficked victims, according to the U.S. Department of State. Consequently, the Laos government lacks a comprehensive and standardized mechanism for identifying and helping victims.

Future Legislation

The Lao government is working internally with the Lao National Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It also works externally with the International Labor Organization to implement several changes, as stated at the International Labour Conference. This includes expanding the government budget for anti-trafficking efforts and standardizing training for police and legal officers.

To this end, the government is also developing a formal curriculum for border crossing administrators, such that they more consistently identify victims. The government further seeks to collect and publicize government anti-trafficking efforts to improve transparency and increase public confidence.

Non-State Actors

Sengsavang, operating in Laos since 2006, is an NGO that works closely with the Lao government to rehabilitate Lao victims of trafficking. The organization has a rehabilitation center in Thailand, in Savannakhet, a hotspot of cross-border trafficking. Sengsavang specifically provides education and vocational training, such that victims can reintegrate into society. To this day, the organization has prevented more than 13,000 individuals from falling victim to trafficking. It also supported over 500 trafficked young girls and women.

In sum, human trafficking in Laos continues to enable and exacerbate human rights abuses. There is nonetheless hope for recovery. Consistent coordinated efforts between the Lao government and NGOs to administer tangible change would contribute greatly to decreasing human trafficking in Laos.

– Emily Xin
Photo: Flickr

Electrification and Energy Expansion
Laos, which many know as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is the only landlocked country in Southeast Asia, sharing borders with Thailand, China, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. While Laos is one of the most impoverished countries in the region, its economy has significantly increased in the last 20 years, so much so that, in 2011, the World Bank upgraded the Lao PDR to lower-middle-income status. However, in terms of energy, not all citizens have access to electricity. The country has had difficulty expanding the energy sector due to factors such as “inaccessible terrain,” unexploded ordinances spread throughout the country, especially throughout rural areas, with some of those areas being more difficult to reach and some provinces having low economic growth compared to others. While expansion in the energy sector proves difficult, the Lao PDR has made a commitment to electrification and energy expansion in Laos to allow all its citizens to have access to electricity, especially as various organizations offer suggestions and plans for Laos to reach its energy goals.

The Current Situation

While the use of hydropower has helped Laos electrify the nation, increasing electrification rates from 15% in 1995 to 90% in 2019, around 5% of citizens still do not have access due to remote terrain locations that makes grid expansion difficult. Around 80.3% of rural areas and 97.4% of urban areas have access to electricity as of 2018. In response, the Lao PDR has an overall goal of enabling electricity access for a minimum of 98% of the overall population by 2030.

Observations and Recommendations by Organizations

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “in 2019, 80% of all [Laos’] electricity generation came from hydropower.” The CSIS recommends that the nation diversify its energy mix “beyond hydropower,” suggesting that Laos expands into non-hydro renewable energy due to its geographic advantage “for solar photovoltaic, wind and biomass energy” and especially as prices in the sector have diminished over the years.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recognizes that Laos has the potential to develop solar power, especially when many parts of the country are exposed to direct sunlight during the dry season. This would potentially “increase the share of non-hydro renewable energies to 30% of total consumption by 2025.” More than 18,657 households have access to small solar power systems as of 2017 and the Lao PDR has started several larger projects to expand access to solar power systems.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in partnership with USAID suggests that electrification and energy expansion in Laos through alternative renewable energies can help the country reach its import demands, which would allow Laos to rely less on other countries for electricity. By expanding in renewable energy sources, Laos can “increase electricity exports to regional neighbors to become the ‘battery’ of Southeast Asia” while also meeting domestic demands.

Plans for Electrification and Energy Expansion in Laos

In Laos, around 50 dams underwent construction as of 2020, a process that will allow more access to electricity for citizens. However, while hydropower from dams will provide more access to electricity, this strategy proves controversial, especially with environmental concerns and communities relying on rivers such as the Mekong to live.

In the search for alternative solutions, Laos is in negotiation with the Thai company Impact Energy Asia to build a 600-megawatt wind farm and have it complete by 2023. By developing the energy sector to become “affordable, inclusive and sustainable” while focusing on socio-economic development, the country can move toward achieving its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.

USAID programs such as the LUNA II Project, implemented from March 2014 through September 2018, help to “promote more sustainable economic policies and a more balanced energy sector” in Laos. The project largely focuses on establishing “trade liberalization” for Lao and “trade capacity building” in both public and private sectors, which will allow improvement of trade and investment. This should allow Laos to expand into alternative, sustainable and renewable energy sources.

Looking Forward

While Laos has made improvements in access to electricity and other resources for the citizenry, this work has not yet reached completion. Fortunately, through suggestions from various organizations and their data collection, Laos is able to offer plans to reach more Laotians. The country stepping up to reach its goals for electrification and energy expansion in Laos will allow the nation to achieve its 2030 energy goals.

– Jerrett Phinney
Photo: Flickr

Corruption in Laos
Laos, or Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is one of the poorest countries in the region. However, its economy has significantly increased in the last 20 years. While it continues working to improve economically, Laos faces a large amount of corruption, ranking 128 out of 180 in the Corruption Perceptions Index in 2021. With the problem still being prevalent, the Lao people suffer the consequences of corrupt officials, creating a lack of confidence in the Lao government. Citizens also suffer from corrupt police officers, who often will detain, bribe and intimidate people. Thankfully, the Lao PDR works to combat corruption by improving the State Inspection Authority’s practice of investigations, doing United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) Reviews and Lao officials having in-person training with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to investigate finances and firings of corrupt state officials and authorities.

How Does Corruption Affect the Poor?

With the World Bank’s goal to end extreme poverty by 2030, it has stated that corruption is a major challenge to overcome all around the world. Corruption disproportionately affects the poor in terms of price gouging and reducing access to social services such as “health, education and justice.” Because corruption is still prevalent, there is a disconnect between the citizens and their trust in government, continuing to perpetuate “discontent that leads to fragility, violent extremism and conflict,” according to the World Bank. This makes poor peoples’ lives more difficult when a country’s government does not invest in its “human capital.”

What is Happening in Laos?

Laos is still developing as a country, resulting in many weak laws and authorities neglecting enforcement. A 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: Laos, that the U.S. Department of State conducted, reported officers practicing arbitrary arrests due to a “provision of the law that permits warrantless arrests in urgent cases,” which makes it easier and allows officers to continue to extort people for bribes or as a tactic for intimidation. Employers fired more than 1,300 low-ranking police officers nationwide from their jobs after they took bribes from drug traffickers and motorists in 2016 under then Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulthin. The results of doing this may help impoverished Lao citizens from intimidation by cops all around the country and partially eliminate corruption in Laos.

The State Inspection Authority reported that the Lao government lost funding for multiple types of currency equaling around $732 million since 2016 due to corruption. Inspectors found that Lao state officials and company executives were misusing funds for various state projects. They also found that road and bridge construction projects as a major activity for graft. Embezzlement lessened the funding going directly to these projects. Because of this, the optimal level of implementation of projects for construction and better roads is not possible, which makes transportation and quality of living difficult for Laos’ citizens.

Companies are at higher risk of facing corruption in Laos when acquiring permits, especially as the regulations implemented in Laos are “often vague and conflicting,” resulting in legislation not being well implemented and enforced under the law. Bribery and incentivizing undocumented extra payments can be more common for public utilities, especially when government officials have low wages.

Solutions

The State Inspection Authority continues to investigate targets as well as state investment programs to account for losses from corruption. Over a span of five years from 2016 to 2020, it had prosecuted 140 employees involved in government, state-owned enterprises and private companies. The office of the President is now directly supervising the State Inspection Authority to effectively investigate government performance and civil servants. There also was a State Inspectors Authority Inspectors Anti-Corruption workshop that took place in February 2022. It focused on “the general definition of anti-corruption, forms and gift of corruption, laundering proceeds of corruption and anti-corruption lessons learned in Laos,” allowing participants to understand their role in fighting corruption in Laos.

The Lao PDR is moving forward to attempt to fight corruption, doing two complete cycles of its UNCAC Review addressing issues such as technical capacity-building needs to investigate finances. The UNODC held in-person training on anti-corruption and financial investigations, even bringing officials from seven different provinces in Laos. Doing this allows authorities to learn how to do financial investigations through online and offline sources, making it easier to expose corruption and hold both public officials and private companies accountable.

Moving Forward

While corruption in Laos is still prominent, the Lao PDR has been working to combat the issue. As Laos continues its fight, the country can invest in its “human capital” to improve its people’s quality of life, as well as make the Lao people more confident in their government. As long as there are continuous efforts to eliminate corruption in Laos, the Lao people will be further away from facing poverty in the future.

– Jerrett Phinney
Photo: Flickr

Agent Orange Affect Southeast Asia
During the Cold War, the policy of containment dominated U.S. foreign policy. The policy of containment is the concept that one can most effectively combat communism by fighting it whenever and wherever it appears. Vietnam came into the crosshairs of the U.S. because the U.S. feared the Soviet influence that was taking hold of the country. Evidently, this policy barely distinguished between neutrality and open hostility and led to the use of agent orange and the U.S. bombings of officially neutral Cambodia and Laos.

Cold War Bombs in Southeast Asia

From 1961 to 1975, beginning with the secret war in Laos and closing with the end of the Vietnam War, the U.S. dropped 2.7 million tons of ordnance, including 26 million cluster bomblets in Cambodia. The U.S. dropped more than 2.1 million tons of ordnance on Laos and 8 million tons of ordnance in Vietnam.

As of 2021, injuries and fatalities because of the campaigns number nearly 64,931 people in Cambodia, 25,000 people in Laos and more than 100,000 people in Vietnam. The crisis at hand is that the legacy of these wars is still severely impacting people living in Southeast Asia. A notable amount of bombs did not detonate on impact, UXOs (Unexploded Ordnances), and these UXOs are still taking lives in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam today. The estimated percentage of ordnance that did not explode that remain are respectively 25% for Cambodia, 33% for Laos and 10% for Vietnam.

Agent Orange in Southeast Asia

Agent Orange was a mixture of herbicides created to eliminate vegetation that the U.S. military sprayed in Vietnam and along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, a trail that spills over into Cambodia and Laos, with the intent of killing vegetation that guerilla fighters were using for cover. By the end of the Vietnam war, the U.S. had sprayed more than 11 million gallons of Agent Orange on Vietnam, with spray drifting into Cambodia and Laos.

The agent resulted in generations of birth defects and chronic health issues including cancer, heart disease, shortened or missing limbs and developmental disabilities that affect both those who had exposure to Agent Orange and their descendants. The damage from the usage of Agent Orange is extensive, for it still deteriorates the health of hundreds of thousands of people and their children in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and the U.S. in the case of veterans who served.

Ameliorating this situation has an added difficulty, the State Department has a split stance. The VA publicly concedes that Agent Orange spray did drift into Cambodia and Laos. Upon being asked about dioxin [Agent Orange], a State Department spokesperson responded that “The legacy of dioxin is a complex issue; and one that the U.S. and Vietnamese governments have collaborated on since 2000,” exclusively referring to Vietnam when Laos and Cambodia have also experienced the effect of how U.S. usage of Agent Orange complicates global efforts to right the wrongs.

UXO Removal: Cambodia and Laos

One State Department partner making a difference in Cambodia and Laos is the HALO Trust, a notable humanitarian landmine and UXO removal organization. Thanks in part to the advocacy efforts of the HALO Trust, there was an increase in Congressional funding for demining efforts in Vietnam and the region, $7 million for Vietnam and $25 million for the region. The combined efforts of the HALO Trust and their local community partners led to the remarkable achievement of dismantling over 575,000 landmines and UXOs in Cambodia and Laos.

Fighting Agent Orange: Vietnam

Dr. Charles R. Bailey, head of the Ford Foundation and agricultural economist, funded a study that led to a monumental breakthrough in fighting Agent Orange. Until this study, there was widespread fear and uncertainty pertaining to how to deal with Agent Orange. However, this study led to the discovery that dioxin [Agent Orange] was no longer a danger in the general landscape of Vietnam, rather it was concentrated only in a few hotspots. This discovery is what made it possible to clean up Agent Orange contaminations so the people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia can finally begin to heal from this wretched legacy of war.

Additionally, this discovery got the legacy of the Cold War in Southeast Asia into American policy circles, executive and Congressional. As Dr. Bailey recalled his time in Vietnam in the late 1990s, he found U.S. diplomats in the embassy were under the direction of the State Department to not even utter the words “Agent Orange.”

The nature of the debate has surpassed this point in the past 20 years, hence the bipartisan support that has come to the floor for funding UXO removals and Agent Orange clean-ups. As of 2022, the U.S. government has spent $400 million to address environmental cleanup and health effects of Agent Orange with the money going towards clean up and persons with disabilities in Vietnam since 1991. This development presents a promising shift in U.S. foreign policy, taking greater responsibility for the legacy of its war in Vietnam. A hopeful start towards extending not only UXO removals to Laos and Cambodia, but also a recognition of the need to fight Agent Orange in the countries as well.

Chester Lankford
Photo: Flickr

Digital Economy
Many consider Laos one of the poorest countries in its surrounding region. However, its economy has significantly improved in the last 20 years, slowly connecting to the rest of the world digitally, especially as businesses were forced to adapt during the COVID-19 pandemic. While Laos has made progress to develop a digital economy, it is still lagging behind as accessibility, quality and affordability are currently issues for its citizens. Thankfully, the Lao Ministry of Technologies and Communications has recognized the need for Laos to develop digitally. In fact, several sectors of the Lao Government are partnering with USAID to allow businesses to access the SMART UP e-learning platform to help enhance their digital literacy.

The Larger Issue

Laos’ lag in digitalization results in a lack of transparency, increased procedural hurdles for investors, high costs for business and lacking public-service delivery for the government. Laos ranks 154 of 190 in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 report as well as 117 of 132 in The World Intellectual Property Organizations 2021 Global Innovation Index. Around 80% of the country works for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), in which an estimated 100,000 operate informally due to “time, fees and paperwork associated with registering.”

Much of this is due to the Lao PDR’s processes being inefficient, having higher costs and disincentivizing businesses to be part of the formal economy. During the COVID-19 pandemic, approximately 78% of children in urban centers and 87.5% of children in rural areas could not access schooling. Around 48.9% of the population remained offline at the beginning of 2020. With 37.6% of the current population in urban areas and 64.2% in rural areas, Laos needs to increase its digitalization for its own development and to catch up with the rest of the world.

Efforts to Create a Digital Economy

The Lao Minister of Technologies and Communications Boveingkham Vongdara has acknowledged Laos’ need to accelerate and move into digital transformation with sustainable development. He claims the ministry is “promoting local language and creation of digital contents by developing fonts and keyboards that support the Lao language for computers and mobile devices.”

The Department of Small and Medium Enterprises Promotion, Ministry of Industry and Commerce and the Lao ICT Commerce association partnered with USAID to launch the SMART UP e-learning platform to help SMEs enhance their digital skills. SMART UP has eight modules that aim to help provide skills to businesses to enhance and promote themselves. It should help with digital literacy to help businesses become agile in the current economic environment, as well as to respond to digital development challenges so SMEs can survive as well as create new opportunities. With SMART UP helping SMEs and entrepreneurs, it will also create more jobs and opportunities for Lao citizens.

Within the first month of the launch, 373 users registered to use the SMART UP platform including 109 for Basic Accounting for SMEs, 63 in Digital Marketing for SMEs, 43 for Introduction to Data Analysis for SMEs, 35 in Full Stack Development, 34 in Multimedia for SMEs and 34 for Introduction to Digitalization. As a result, many small business owners have had a stronger foundation of knowledge in a quickly changing business environment.

Looking Ahead

While the COVID-19 pandemic presented many challenges, it also presented opportunities for the Lao PDR to participate in the digital age and develop a digital economy. With its government recognizing the necessity for a digital economy and platforms such as SMART UP allowing citizens to become more digitally literate, Laos will elevate itself and create more opportunities for economic growth.

– Jerrett Phinney
Photo: Flickr

Waste Management
Laos, known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is one of the most impoverished countries in Southeast Asia. However, over the last 20 years, its economy has been one of the fastest-growing in the region, resulting in an increase in the amount of waste generated. Waste management systems struggle to keep up with this increased waste. Waste management in Laos is “limited to urban centers” and tends to be poorly managed with just 40%-60% of waste collected. Pollution affects the Lao people negatively, resulting in around 10,000 deaths per year, according to a 2021 study by the World Bank. With waste management emerging as a dire issue, the World Bank, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Global Green Growth Institute (GGGI) are offering support to address the issue.

The Larger Part of the Issue

Around four million tonnes of plastic waste discharges into the world’s seas annually, mostly originating from rivers in Asia such as the Mekong, which goes through Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. About 70 million people rely on this river for food and resources, especially in Laos, though it is “one of the dirtiest in the world.” The Laotian lifestyle is transitioning from a “traditional and subsistence-based lifestyle” to a more urban lifestyle that focuses more on consumerism and imported goods.

The lack of waste dump sites and formal infrastructure significantly and directly impacts the health of citizens, especially when resorting to disposal practices such as burning, burying trash and discarding waste in rivers. Testing of the water sources across more than 3,000 households in Laos shows that  E.Coli in drinking water contaminated 86% of the household population. Furthermore, even for homes using bottled water, a staggering 85% of individuals had E. Coli in their bottled water.

Making the Effort

Laos citizens view plastics as a luxury item, portraying a sign of economic progression. However, this mindset also contributes to plastics becoming the second-largest type of waste, accounting for up to 24% of total waste generated by Laos. But, even as plastic and other wastes are prevalent, cities such as Luang Prabang are making an effort to keep the area’s streets clean. With the locals taking action to actively keep the city clean, these city-dwellers set the example for other city-dwellers in Laos. Responsibility is on communities and households, especially as Laos has a small budget for addressing the waste management issue.

A World Bank 2022 Get CLEAN and GREEN – Solid waste and Plastic Management in Lao PDR report recommends strategies to resolve the waste management issue. One strategy is to move from a linear to a “circular economy.” This would reduce waste by “reusing, repairing, refurbishing and recycling existing materials and products.”

The UNDP’s Work

The UNDP gathered a focus group of around 30 university students from diverse economic backgrounds, finding that close to 90% of students realize how poor waste management impacts the planet. The organization gave students suggestions for taking action, such as establishing task forces in communities and using social media to share information on helping as green advocates.

The UNDP also found that students who learned to separate waste in schools were eager to follow waste separation procedures. An online UNDP survey shows that social media would influence the mindsets and behaviors of more than 80% of respondents. The UNDP considers the immediate banning of plastic as critical.

The GGGI is aiding in solid waste management in the capital city of Vientiane, formulating a 10-year Strategy and Action Plan. It also has created four project activities:

  • Decentralized garbage collection services
  • A Waste Bank and the designation of the role of waste pickers
  • Organic waste segregation systems and private composting companies
  • Glass recycling involving 10 elementary schools to maximize waste disposal

Looking Ahead

While the Lao PDR transitions to a more urban economy and struggles with waste, organizations have offered solutions to support a more sanitary Laos, which will benefit the health and well-being of people. As education reaches citizens and offers them pathways out of poverty, Laos can create a safer, cleaner and more prosperous country for its populace. And if the country does lean more toward a “circular economy,” Laos could be on its way to reaching a net carbon neutral status by 2040.

Jerrett Phinney
Photo: Flickr

Innovations in Poverty Eradication in Laos
Laos, known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, is the only landlocked country located in Southeast Asia. It ranks as one of the region’s poorest countries, ranking 122 on the human development index. While the country has significantly reduced its poverty rate over the years, its people are still susceptible to falling back. Fortunately, various organizations as well as the United States government have continued to provide aid and elevate Lao society. Here are some innovations in poverty eradication in Laos, involving initiatives like UNICEF and the Poverty Reduction Fund (PRF).

Modifications in Child Education

Low completion rates in education have always been an issue in Laos, especially in regions such as the southern province of Saravan. UNICEF with the support of the Hong Kong National Committee has been training pre-primary teachers on effective teaching, learning and class management that center around children. This includes the use of learning corners, creating through local sources and children learning while at play, as well as access to distributed materials, which include coloring books, picture books and storybooks. Around 50 pre-primary teachers that received this training for 2021-2022 benefitted more than 4,000 children in Saravan’s southern province.

Improved Access to Water and Hygiene

At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF worked with 23 schools in the Sarvan region to construct water stations, toilets and promote water hygiene activities. The benefits for the children have led to children not having to defecate in open areas, practicing proper handwashing techniques with soap and students going home to teach their families proper handwashing techniques. All factors incentivize cleanliness, which lessens the likelihood of disease.

People-to-People Ties with the United States

With Barack Obama being the first sitting U.S. President to visit Laos, the U.S. and PDR continue to work together through a harsh historical legacy to open a new era of bilateral relations. Because 70% of Laos’ population is under 30, the United States is using exchange programs that include Humphrey, Fulbright, the Global Undergraduate Exchange Program and Obama’s Young Southeast Asia Leaders Initiative (YSEALI) to engage and elevate the next generation of young leaders. English teaching programs will also emerge by introducing more teachers and language experts, improving English-language skills and increasing connectivity between younger generations of both countries.

The Poverty Reduction Fund (PRF)

The World Bank has been part of the PRF since its inception in 2002, empowering Lao villagers and improving village infrastructure. This has resulted in 165 villages establishing 915 Self Help Groups, totaling more than 10,000 members (85% female) between 2012 and 2019. About 15 of 23 pilot Village Nutrition Centers are still in operation as of 2016, allowing members to use products provided to continue making nutritious meals. PRF infrastructure activities have resulted in 87% of target households participating in voting on village priorities, with women identifying 90% of the subprojects. With such positive progress, preparations are currently underway to further improve both livelihood and nutrition activities.

As it stands, innovations in poverty eradication in Laos have been able to elevate the Lao people through historical hardship. While the country’s poverty rate has significantly decreased from 48% to 18% from 1993 to 2019, the implementation of further innovations in poverty eradication in Laos will need to continue, thus increasing the livelihood of the Lao people.

Jerrett Phinney
Photo: Flickr